Remembering Jack

Photo of Jack Stewart and his dock out into Lime Lake

We met at an afternoon gathering of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, held in the old meeting house styled sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Richland. I don’t remember the date. It must have been around 2009. I sat in the balcony, having come prepared with a book. Not seeing anything too important on the agenda, I planned to pass the hours reading. I knew the usual suspects would speak on every issue. Feeling my voice wasn’t really needed to add to the debate, I began reading. I don’t even remember the book, but it had something to do with 19th Century church history. 

Jack sat in the same pew, but there was a gap between us. Catching the book title, he slid over and quietly asked about it. Soon, we were whispering back and forth, discussing Charles Hodge, the great 19th theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary. Jack had written his dissertation on Hodge. That was a beginning of our friendship. 

Jack had just retired from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he’d spent the previous fifteen years teaching. Before that, he taught few years at Yale Divinity School and before that at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He’d also served as pastor of several churches in the Pittsburgh area and Westminster Presbyterian in Grand Rapids. We met several times for breakfast. In 2010, I hired Jack to lead a session retreat for the church I served in Hastings, Michigan. In 2011, I hired him again to help run our stewardship program. 

This smallmouth bass grew into an 8 pounder by happy hour!

At some point, it may have been at that Presbytery meeting, Jack and I began to discuss his favorite topic, fishing. Over the next few years, Jack and I made several trips to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan where he had a cabin which he and his sons had built back in the 60s. When I asked what I needed to bring on the trip, he told me to bring my rod. “In my family,” Jack informed me, “we would no more ask to borrow someone’s rod as we would their toothbrush.” I packed both. 

Jack’s cabin was a simple A frame, set a hundred or so feet from the shore of Lime Lake, which is not far from Sleeping Bear National Seashore. I also went on a fishing trip with him to the Pere Marquette River, but by then his health declined. He could no longer get into the water to fish with a flying rod. While I waded out a bit to fish, I ended up spending most of my time fishing from the bank, where Jack sat in a chair and made an occasional cast. We didn’t catch anything. On the trips to Lime Lake, we caught a lot of smallmouths using rubber worms and a spinning rod. 

Jack swore he caught the largest fish on this day

Jack had his traditions. On these trips up north, we’d stop and grab coffee in Cadillac. The next stop was a country store in Maple City that had a little bit of everything, including a meat market which made sausage. We’d pick up a few pounds for our breakfasts. Each trip always included a stop at the Carlson Fish Market off the docks in Leland for some smoked white fish and pate. 

Days at the cabin were relaxed. Breakfast was generally eggs, sausage, and toast. Before we ate, he’d pull out his old leather-bound copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer. Baillie, a Scottish pastor from early in the 20th Century, had two prayers, a morning and evening prayer, for each day of the month. At breakfast, one of us would read the morning prayer. After eating, we’d fish in his aluminum boat. It was always catch-and-release.  We’d come in off the water for lunch and maybe take a short nap before heading back out on the water. 

We generally stopped fishing around 4:30. When we got back to the cabin, we’d have some crackers and pate or smoked whitefish, with a wee dram of scotch. One of us would read Baillie’s evening prayer for the day. Baillie and Scotch were appropriate for Jack,. He proclaimed his last name was how Stewart was supposed to be spelled. The other Stuarts were highfalutin Francophile Scots. After this Scottish ritual, we’d head out to one of the many restaurants and pubs in the area for dinner.  

As we fished, as well we drove around the region, or sat around after dark, nursing one more drink, we’d talk. Topics were numerous:  theology, travel, world affairs, politics, what we’ve been reading, and some more theology. One particular concern for Jack was ecclesiology, which Jack felt was the weak link in the Reformed Tradition. But our talks weren’t always serious. We always told jokes. Jack could find a way to intersperse a joke into any conversation. 

Jack was raised south of Pittsburgh, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. I think his father was a coal miner and his family was of modest means. Jack earned a scholarship to Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA.  While in college, he became friends with Bruce Thielemann, who later became a very popular preacher at 1stPresbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (click here for some of Thielemann’s sermons). Sharing my remembrance of hearing Thielemann preach in the seminary chapel when I was a student tickled Jack. Thielemann died in 1994 and Jack spoke at his funeral. 

After college, Jack and Bruce attended seminary in Pittsburgh. His class was one of the first for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was formed with the merger of Xenia and Western Theological Seminary (Xenia was the seminary for the United Presbyterian Church of North America and Western was a Seminary for the Presbyterian Church, USA The two denominations united in 1959).

While at seminary, he became a friend of Robert Kelly and Jack Rogers. Twenty-seven years later, Kelly was one of my New Testament professors when I was in seminary. Rogers spoke at my seminary graduation and was the moderator of the 2001 General Assembly of which I was a commissioner. The four were mentored by John Gerstner. Jack appreciated Gerstner’s guidance, but could not abide by his rigid conservatism. Jack told me about him meeting Gerstner years after seminary in which his old professor told him how he and his friends were a disappointment because none of them had joined in his battles. 

After I left Michigan, Jack and I would occasionally exchange emails or talk by phone. Often, when I was in the area, I would stay with him and his wife, Maureen. On at least two occasions, I was there on a Sunday and would worship with them at the Church of the Servant, which is located near the campus of Calvin University. At home, before meals, he’d offer grace using the opening words of Psalm 103.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.

I last saw Jack in October 2022. I was at at Calvin for a Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar. On a free evening, I drove over to his home for dinner. I knewJack wasn’t doing well. Still, it was a shocked a few weeks ago when Marueen emailed me that Jack had been in the hospital and was coming home under hospice care. Thankfully, I was able to talk to Jack two weeks ago. On Sunday, I received an email informing me of his death.  

I will miss his jokes and stories. Both the true stories, along with the tales about a fish which must have grown by pounds between catching it and telling about it.

Mar sin leat, my friend. 

For Jack’s Obituary, click here.

On Lime Lake

The Earth is Enough

Harry Middleton, The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Flyfishing, Trout, & Old Men

 (1989, Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1996), 206 pages. 

Harry, Albert, and Emerson

It’s 1965. The Vietnam War heats up and involves Harry’s father. As a twelve-year-old who has lived around the world, Harry is sent to stay with his grandfather and uncle on a hardscrabble farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. While most of his classmates look for ways out of the community, Harry wants to find a way to stay. He learns to fish and hunt along with gaining wisdom of the two old men (Albert and Emerson), and their dog, Cody. Both men have lost wives and now together. While they haven’t travelled far from where they live, they read widely. An atlas takes them to trout streams around the world. During trout season, they are on the creek at dawn. After fishing the morning Starlight Creek, around Cody’s Rock or Karen’s Pool, they work in the fields until evening, when they again fish. For the old men, fly fishing was a blessing to a “hard and often depressing life.” 

Take only what you need

When a man in town known as a great killer of turkeys brags in the local diner about how one needs to be camouflaged to kill turkeys, Emerson digs out an old Santa Claus outfit and heads into the hills. Dressed as Santa, he kills a large Tom. He drops the bird off at the diner, saying that the key isn’t camouflaged, but being quiet. But the other man’s idea of slaughtering large number of birds goes against Albert and Emerson’s philosophy. Their fishing is mostly catch-and-release. Likewise, they only hunt for what they needed, a deer a season for meat and a few birds for a variety. When heading out to hunt, they only take a few shells. The rest of the time they delight in seeing.  

Ambition appears lacking in Albert and Emerson. The local agriculture representative tries to tell them how their farm could be more profitable, but they aren’t interested. After all, more money would bring complications and complications are to be avoided. Fly fishing “saved them from the dreary life of subsistence farmers.” It gives “them a way to participate in the rhythms of the natural world other than my shouldering a hoe.” (77)

Elias Wonder

Nearby, in an old cabin, lives Elias Wonder, a Sioux and former Marine, who was gassed in World War I. Waking from the experience, he first thought he was Robert E. Lee and volunteers to surrender. As he regains part of his senses, he decides he is in hell as only white men populate the hospital. Ten years later, Elias shows up on the farm on his quest for death. The two old men, who weren’t yet so old but having lost their wives, adopt him and nurse him back to health. They help Wonder out by providing him with corn which he converts to moonshine to supply himself and the town. Along the way, for 40 years, Elias kept seeking death. When he was struck by lightning, he complained it only cleared his sinuses. 

Reverend Biddle 

Another character in this book is the Reverend Biddle, pastor at the Primitive Methodist Church. One Sunday afternoon a month, he’d come over and enjoy some wine as he talked salvation with the two men and occasionally Elias. While Albert and Emerson fail to see the benefit in religion, they enjoyed the conversation. Having heard from the Reverend Biddle that the poor would inherit the earth, the two old men realize it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. “‘By the time we get it,’ snapped Albert one Sunday, ‘it’ll be like inheriting last month’s fish.’”

Conclusion and my recommendation

This was a delightful story, but Middleton’s writing can be difficult. More than normal, I found myself reaching for a dictionary to check the meaning of words like piscator, prolix, bilious, and splenetic…  At times, the author jumps forward and looks back, such as when in the middle of the story, he thinks back on one of the men’s deaths. While I found this annoying, it didn’t keep from giving the book a five-star review on Goodreads. I enjoyed this story and will have to read other books by the author. Sadly, he died young, in the 1990s. 

Many writers compared this book to Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. Both are about coming of age and trout fishing. Both involve the author’s life’s story with some novelist flare. While I see the similarities, I found myself thinking about the movie, “Secondhand Lions.” The old men in the book and movie come from different circumstances, but both stories involve a young boy staying with older men and learning from them. 

I found the book to be a joy. While I don’t recommend the religious attitudes (or lack thereof) of the men in the story, knowing that we’ve been given enough and being grateful for what we have is a lesson worth learning. 

A Quote to take with you:

“The angler hopes for nothing and prays for everything; he expects nothing and accepts all that comes his way.” (79)

Joe’s Fork

Joe’s Fork, about a mile upstream from the old mill

“Were you able to dig us some worms?” Granddaddy asked as he got out of his truck. 

“Yes sir,” I said, “some nice ones.” 

He smiled.  We head into the house.  Dinner is ready.  He stops in the bathroom to wash his hands and removes his cap as he sits at the table.  Grandma is across from him, and I sit between them.  We bow our heads. Granddaddy prays:

“We thank thee for the food we’re about to receive. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and us to thy service.  Amen.  

Grandma passes around the food. Fried chicken, field peas, corn on the cob, squash, and biscuits. The vegetables all come from her garden. We eat in a hurry. When finished, I run back into my room and change into long pants. I strap my knife to the belt. Granddaddy collects the rods and placed them in the back of the truck along with tackle boxes and the can of my recently dug worms. As we climb into the cab, Grandma berates us to use plenty of bug spray. Granddaddy turns the ignition, then pops the clutch. The truck springs forward. He pulls out onto the highway, heading east. About a mile later, the road snakes down into a hardwood swamp. We cross Joe’s Fork on a small bridge. Looking down, I realize we could wade across without getting our knees wet. As we begin the climb on the other side of the bridge, granddaddy turns right, onto a two-track dirt road that leads back into the woods.

“Where are we going?” I ask as we bounced in the truck and bushes swished along the sides of the truck. 

“To McKenzie Mill Pond.”

“What kind of fish will we catch?”

“There should be some nice bream, maybe a jack or a bass.”

“Is the mill still there?”

“No, it burned.” 

“How? When was that?” I ask.

“I’m not sure.” 

“But the pond is still there?”

“Yeah, the beavers damned the stream back up.”

“When you were a boy, did you ever go to the mill? 

“No, it was before my time.” 

Realizing I not going to learn anything about the mill, I think I’ll see if there was anything to know about the current residents. “When did the beavers dam the stream up?”

“In the late forties, I think. Your dad was a boy when they reintroduced beavers to this area.” He slows down, then turns hard, pushing the pickup into brush by the side of the two-track road. I realize he didn’t want to block the road, but it didn’t seem to matter. The road with this much overgrowth didn’t appear to be well traveled. 

“You sure ask a lot of questions,” my granddad says as he turned the engine off. Getting out, we spray ourselves with bug juice. Granddad puts a wad of Beechnut chewing tobacco in his mouth, then we grab our rods and stuff and walk toward the dam which the beavers had restored.  

On the edge of the dam, we drop our gear. The vegetation is thick around the pond. Granddaddy wouldn’t be using his Browning fly rod here, I realize. We’ll both be fishing with worms. I tie a hook to the line on my rod, placed a small weight just above the hook, and attached a bobber about 2 feet up the line. The pond is shallow. Once my rod is rigged and baited, I step out on the edge of the dam and cast into the middle of the pond, just shy of a water moccasin bathing on a log in the waning sun. Granddaddy heads around the pond and finds a place where he could cast his line out and be freed of more questions. 

My bobber floats undisturbed, as I swatted mosquitoes and deer flies which swarmed around my head, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from my brow. It’s a hot and steaming. No air moves along the creek bottom.  After a few minutes with no action, boredom sets in. I slowly reel in the line, and cast it again, right beside that big snake. My cork doesn’t faze it, but neither did anything nibble on my worm. I pull my line in again. 

“If you don’t leave your hook in water, you won’t catch any fish.” Granddaddy yells over at me. He normally didn’t say much when fishing. He doesn’t want the fish to be spooked with our talk.  

A jitterbug lure

I cast again, this time dropping the hook just inches in front of that big old moccasin’s head. I wait: ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, a minute. Nothing bites. I didn’t come out here to wait. I reel my line in again and made another cast and then another. The whole time that water moccasin sits on his log position. I wonder if it is dead, but I know better. Is it mocking me? The snake just lies on the log. It is getting on my nerves. I retrieve my line again. Looking in my tackle box, I pull out a large jitterbug, a top floating lure that works wonders on the bass right around dark. Taking off the hook and bobber, I tie the jitterbug on my line, and cast it toward the snake. It fell just short of the moccasin. I reel it in, the lure jittering back and forth across the water.  

“What are you doing fishing with that?” my granddad ask.

 “Nothing’s taking the worms,” I answer as I make another cast. This one sails across the moccasin and lands in the water, a few feet beyond the snake. It doesn’t move, even with the line lying across its back. I slowly reel, bringing the lure up beside the log upon which the snake has perched itself. I pause. Then I jerk the rod back hard and snag the snake in the back with the lure’s treble hook. The snake snaps around at its unseen assailant, its cottonmouth angrily exposed. It slides off the log with and starts swimming away with my lure, its head high above the water. I let it have some line while tightening the drag. 

“What did you do that for?” My grandfather yell, as he beats a path over to me. “That snake wasn’t bothering you.” 

The snake turned. Instead of fighting the line, it started swimming toward us, its head propped up like the Loch Ness monster. I stopped reeling as I could see no reason to hasten the encounter.

“What are you going to do now?” Granddaddy asked.

I pulled out my knife and hold it in the same hand as my rod.

“What are you going to do with that?” 

“I’ll stick him,” 

“Put that knife away,” he yells as he picked up a stick that was maybe five feet long. “Use this.” He hands the stick to me. “You hooked him, take care of him.”  

It seemed like a good idea, but now I’m not so sure as this is one large angry and deadly poisonous snake. But then, thankfully, when about twenty feet away, the snake shakes free of the lure. It then turns, and swims in another direction, disappearing in the brush. I reel my lure in. I’d been saved from an angry snake, but now had to contend with an angry grandfather.

“We’re done fishing,” he says, packing up his gear.

As we walk back to the truck on the trail that was near the brush where I last saw the snake, I keep my eyes peeled for a moccasin out for revenge. It was not to be seen. I hear distant thunder. A cloud is building that might bring relief to this hot day. I step into the passenger side of granddaddy’s truck. I know better than to ask any more questions. We drive in silence.   

There are no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed this night. It takes me a while to fall asleep as I worry if hell ever take me fishing again. Grandma has turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows. The curtains fly like ghosts in the cooling wind of the approaching storm. Lightning bolts quickly followed by thunder and each strike fill the room with light. Then the rain comes. Finally, the rain stops, and the lightning and thunder became further apart as the storm moves east. I fall asleep to the drip of water off the roof. 

The air smells fresh the next morning. As I come out for breakfast, Granddaddy looks up from the News and Observer he’d been reading and asks if I want to go fishing again.  

A copy of a photo of my grandfather’s company. He is second to the right. This photo was taken sometime in the early 70s. He died in January 1977.